Our first road trip for quite a while, and top of my bucket list, the North Coast 500 (NC500) is marketed as Scotland’s answer to US Route 66. Roughly 500 miles long, it starts and finishes in Inverness, and pretty much follows the coast road around Northern Scotland. Planned as a holiday rather than a photo trip, there was obviously going to be lots of photo opportunities, but not much time for considered and contemplative photography – right from the outset I figured it was going to be pretty much snapshots only. So, no filter systems, just my Olympus E-M1ii camera and 12-100mm ‘superzoom’ lens, and a Pen-F and 17mm as ‘backup’.
Starting from home in Shropshire added another 250 miles each way to the start point, so it was more like a NC1000 for us! It all started in rather damp fashion, with a grim drive in the rain through the M6 roadworks in Cheshire. Fortunately the rain eased off after that and we got to our first overnight stop on Loch Lomond without incident, although the rain made another appearance. Staying in the excellent Lodge on Loch Lomond overnight, with the added bonus of a sauna in our (upgraded) room set us up for what turned out to be an eventful second day.
It started well enough, with a steady drive up through beautiful Glencoe, followed by a brief stop in Fort William to take in an exhibition of Scottish Landscape Photography. All good stuff. Then the plan unravelled – the swing bridge at Spean Bridge on the A82 had jammed in the open position, totally blocking the route northbound. Rather than waiting until it was hopefully fixed, or taking a 90 mile diversion, we opted to cut across to Mallaig via Glennfinnan, and take the ferry to Skye, before crossing back to the mainland and working along the coast. We had an anxious hour’s wait as the ferry was fully booked and we had to go standby! Fortunately they squeezed us on, and we had a bracing 35 min journey across The Sound of Sleat to Ammandale, incidentally pretty much the only way to Skye before the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995. Not so lucky were the dozen or so cars in the queue behind us – they had wait for the next ferry 2 hours later… So it was then a straight drive to Broadford, and across the Skye bridge to pick up our original planned route – we were on Skye for just 25 minutes!
After a further couple of hours driving on fairly twisty and narrow (sometimes single track) roads, it was a relief to get to our hotel in Torridon – straight into the bar for a well deserved gin and tonic! A decent enough gin selection, but nothing compared to the almost 400 whiskies on offer! A beautiful hotel, albeit at the top of our budget, but so full of Scottish style and charm.
Up bright and early next morning (more sunshine too!) for our first ‘serious’ part of the NC500 – the Applecross Peninsular, and the infamous Bealach Na Ba pass through the mountains. Reaching just over 2000ft at its highest point, this is not a road for the faint-hearted, or for camper vans – one section is very narrow indeed, with a gradient of 1 in 4, a series of hairpin bends, and
very steep drops just beyond the crash barriers! However, the views are simply amazing, looking out across the hills towards Loch Carron in the south, and Skye and its outlying islands to the west. After a brief stop at the summit viewpoint to take in the vista, it was all the way down again into the quaint little village of Applecross with its beautiful, if rather stony beach. A quick lunch at the excellent Applecross Inn and we were off again, along the coast road back towards Shieldaig. More amazing scenery as we tracked along the coast – mountains to our right, and sea to the left, with Skye and its islands of Rassay and Rona in the distance. With so much to see, and so many places to stop off and admire the views, it took us a good couple of hours to make the return journey to the hotel.
An amazing day, and one that completely surpassed our expectations. Roll on tomorrow, and Part 2!